|Photo by: Marc Israel Sellem|
Who is ‘haredi’
By HAIM AMSALEM
‘I dream of shifting Israeli society to a culture in which no
person has to define himself.’
The haredi (ultra-Orthodox) population has been in the news a lot this past
year. The episodes of religious extremism earlier in the year led to significant
debate about the haredim. The Supreme Court recently ruled that the Tal Law,
which exempted the ultra-Orthodox population from IDF service, must be
These and other related news items have brought the word
“haredi” to the fore throughout Israel.
But the fundamental question is:
Who is haredi? That question must be asked because many people, including
myself, consider themselves haredi but are not viewed as such by many in the
haredi community. It would actually be easier to clarify who is not a haredi
according to preset standards, since the haredi press tends to focus on this
So, who isn’t haredi? Here is the list as I understand
A person who waves an Israeli flag is not haredi. Zionists are not
A person who believes in service to the country is not haredi. A
person who believes in joining the workforce on principle is not a haredi. A
person who believes in gaining a secular education even while studying Torah at
the same time is not haredi. A person who believes that there is “wisdom among
the nations” is not haredi.
A person who uses the Internet is not haredi.
A person who does not adhere to every pronouncement of one, specific rabbi is
not haredi. A woman who wears the wrong head covering is not haredi. A person
that does not wear black from head to toe is not haredi. A person whose kippa is
not black is not haredi. A person who wears a blue shirt is not haredi. And the
list goes on and on.
I know that many people who view themselves as
haredi fit into one or more of the non-haredi categories listed above. And this
captures the problem burning within the haredi community today. There is a
pressure to maintain haredi status even though many haredim recognize that the
demands being made by their leaders and media outlets are absurd and many who
view themselves as haredi do not fit into the mold formed by the
Based on the above criteria, “haredi” as imposed on the
community by strong and controlling powers describes an anti-Zionist,
non-working, uneducated, isolated, unreasonably strict, uncultured, black hat,
white shirt, black pants wearing Jew.
This is ridiculous because that is
not how most haredim want to be defined by others and certainly not how they
want to view themselves.
Therefore, I and my partners in the Am Shalem
movement, have committed ourselves to restoring the original meaning of the word
haredi, which is “one who trembles,” a reference to individuals who “tremble to
fulfill His [God’s] word” (Isaiah 66:5).
Let’s face it – a person can
“tremble to fulfill God’s words” and be Zionist, “tremble before God” and work
to sustain his family, “tremble before God” and receive a well-rounded
education, and “tremble before God” while wearing a knitted kippa and colored
shirts! It is my hope that the hundreds of thousands of people who view
themselves as haredi will begin to see through this labeling ploy which many in
the ultra-Orthodox leadership and media use to help them keep control over the
community and will feel empowered to live the true haredi lifestyles defined by
“trembling to fulfill the word of God” while not conforming to man-made,
The issue I have raised in this column proves the
necessity of the fulfillment of my dream for Israel and motivates me to work
even harder to help make it become a reality. I dream of shifting Israeli
society to a culture in which no person has to define himself. I dream of Israel
mirroring the tradition which was common in North African Jewish communities,
from where my family hails, where Jews were simply “Jewish,” with no further
definitions or barriers that define one group of Jews as separate from the
Of course, people had varying levels of religious observance, but
no one labeled them based on their degree of observance and especially not based
on their appearance, remembering the Talmudic warning to never “look at the
outside of the jar.” People simply focused on their own Judaism that was
meaningful to them without rating which “box” others fell into.
to far greater unity and respect for all Jews. No one had to act or prove that
they lived up to the demands of any other human being.
understood that we were all Jews and that is what mattered most.
individual, private religious practices of others were not on the radar and
certainly not the focus like they are today.
We are currently in the time
period of the Jewish calendar called the Omer, during which we mourn for the
deaths of 24,000 Torah students and scholars.
The Talmud teaches that
they died in a plague which punished them for “not giving honor from one to the
other.” Let us learn the lesson from their failure and begin to tear down the
walls and labels which are ripping us apart as a nation. We can begin by
enabling everyone who sees themselves as “trembling to fulfill the word of God”
to view themselves as haredi.
The author is a member of Knesset, an
ordained rabbi, and the chairman of the Am Shalem movement.